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Weird History: The Coffee Royal Incident
History|Aug 23, 2021

Weird History: The Coffee Royal Incident

A Story Of Scandal, An Emergency Landing And Lying Media Vultures.
Ben Pobjie

Charles Kingsford Smith – known as ‘Smithy’ because some people felt ‘Kingsfordy’ was a bit too unwieldy – is probably Australia’s most famous pilot. 

Smithy was the first man to fly non-stop across Australia, as well as the first man to fly across the Pacific from America to Australia, and the first man to fly across the Pacific from Australia to America. Which is, it should be noted, a lot harder than flying across the Atlantic, a much smaller ocean, proving that Australia’s Charles Kingsford Smith was a much better pilot than America’s Charles Lindbergh. Smithy was also better than Lindbergh at not sympathising with Nazis, but that’s a whole other story. 

But even the greatest ever Australian pilot ran into his share of trials and tribulations. 

In 1929, while flying from Sydney to England, he was forced to make a dangerous emergency landing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Normally this would be no big deal, just another day in the life of a handsome adventurer. But on this occasion the mishap led to a scandal that threatened to blacken Smithy’s good name forever. 

The problem was that when a plane crash-lands in the middle of nowhere, someone needs to go out and save the unfortunate occupants. In the end, Kingsford Smith was rescued by a party  who travelled overland to the mudflat where Smithy’s famous plane, the Southern Cross, had gone down. But before they got there, another rescue party had set out, in the air.

Keith Vincent Anderson and Bobby Hitchcock were friends of Kingsford Smith’s who set out in a plane called Kookaburra to find their fallen comrade, before rather unfortunately crash-landing themselves, in the Tanami Desert. Crash-landing is never a picnic, but there’s an old aviator’s saying that goes, “If the crash doesn’t kill you, the thirst and exposure will”, and in a way that saying was borne out by the fact that two weeks after they crashed, Anderson and Hitchcock died of thirst and exposure. Sadly, nobody was as eager to rescue them as they had been to rescue Smithy.

The incident didn’t really have anything to do with coffee at all, it had to do with planes crashing and men dying in the desert

The media of the day jumped all over the story, twisting it into an outrage. Rather than reporting it as an unfortunate tragedy, the gutter press instead accused Charles Kingsford Smith of having orchestrated his own emergency landing as a publicity stunt, and through his overweening vanity and lust for fame, having thereby caused the deaths of two decent men who weren’t in on it. Smithy was painted as an attention whore willing to risk others’ lives to feed his ego, and it was alleged that he had delayed his own rescue by not using engine oil to light his fire, thereby making it more difficult to see from the air.

The papers dubbed the affair “The Coffee Royal Incident”, because apparently Anderson and Hitchcock had been drinking that brand of coffee while they waited for saviours who never came. There were a couple of issues with this: first, that really wasn’t the most efficient use of their water supplies, given they were dying of thirst; and second, calling it that was definitely misleading. The incident didn’t really have anything to do with coffee at all, it had to do with planes crashing and men dying in the desert. It was like calling the Defenestration of Prague ‘the Licorice Affair’ because they’d eaten some licorice before being thrown out the window. 

There was no evidence at all that Smithy had deliberately downed the Southern Cross, or that he was responsible in any way for his friends’ deaths. In fact, all evidence is that Anderson’s and Hitchcock’s demise devastated the famous flier. But the vultures of the media needed their feeding frenzy, and an official inquiry was set up to determine who was in the right: the national hero or the jerks with typewriters. 

The inquiry exonerated Kingsford Smith, which could’ve been predicted, as there was literally no reason to hold it in the first place.

Still, the media beat-up and smearing of Smithy’s good name had one positive effect. Over 6000 people showed up at the funerals of Anderson and Hitchcock to honour their courage; people who would probably never have heard of the fliers were it not for the aspersions cast on their friend. And so, via media mendacity were two brave men given their due. Funny how it works sometimes.